Battle of Little Bighorn: 46 – Subdue the Sioux

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

On February 1, 1876, by decree of the Secretary of the Interior, the Indians in the unceded territory were declared to be hostile. The Secretary of War was to take whatever means he thought necessary to subdue these hostiles and insure that they were confined on the reservations.

General Phil Sheridan

Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan’s Division of the Missouri included the Sioux country where the hostiles were to be located. He welcomed the Secretary of the Interior’s decision. An order had been sent to the hostiles, demanding them to come into the reservations by January 31, 1876 or be considered hostiles, and promising that they would be subdued by any means necessary. Sheridan had pressed for a winter campaign, a situation that would catch the hostiles off guard. However, the Indian Bureau had insisted on giving the Indians a chance to come into the reservations on their own by the given date. January 31, 1876 came and passed without the hostiles making a reservation showing.

Now, with January 31st past, Sheridan ordered Brigadier General George Crook and Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, Sheridan’s department commanders, to organize an expedition for the purpose of subduing the hostiles.

General Alfred Terry

The plan called for three columns, one from Crook’s department and two from Terry’s department, which included the 7th Cavalry under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

These three columns would come from three separate directions on the area where the hostiles were thought to be camped. No other plans were made, for all of these military giants were certain that any one of the three columns was strong enough to defeat the hostiles.

Lt. Col. George Custer

It was estimated by the Indian Bureau that there were from 500 to 800 Indians warriors to be contended with. This estimate was basaed on the number of Indians reported, by the Indian agents, to be missing from the reservations.

General Terry’s two columns were delayed by bad weather but General Crook organized an 800-man column at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming. It consisted of infantry and cavalry. In early March, Crook marched northward along the old Bozeman Trail even though the temperature stood at subzero and deep snow covered the ground.

Red Cloud’s Camp

On March 17, Crook sent Colonel J. J. Reynolds, with a column consisting of six cavalry companies, to attack the Sioux and Cheyenne winter camp on the Powder River. Though the Indians were surprised and scattered, they managed to mount a counterattack. This prompted Reynolds to abandon the fight and fall back to the main column.

Because of losses, Crook headed back to Fort Fetterman to outfit for another campaign. In Crook’s defense, it should be noted that although he was a noted Indian fighter, a good deal of Crook’s battles had been fought on the southern plains against the Apache and like tribes in a hot, desert environment.